Here are a few scattered stories from New Orleans to give a picture of what it is like there...
Have you ever mopped a floor? Do you know how the water in the mop bucket gets brown and smelly really fast? In a hurry, have you ever used the brown water to "clean" the floor? If you have, then you know the smell of a room that has been mopped with dirty mopwater. Well, that is what New Orleans smells like, in my opinion. The whole city smells like it has been washed down with that nasty-smelling mop water. Initially it was hard for me to adjust to the work there because the smell was so bad in so many places, and everything felt sticky. I don't know if that is how it always was before, but it wasn't until we started actually doing service work for people that I was able to put aside my recoil and get about helping others.
The wind-damaged areas of town seem to be pretty much back to normal, in terms of function and population. The flooded areas, however, are obviously still years away from normal. A few brave families have moved back into houses in St. Bernard and the Ninth Ward. Essentially they are camping inside their gutted houses; they are sleeping on cots among the bare studs, wires, and subfloors. They are rebuilding their houses as they have the money to do so...a room here, a room there. In many cases they do not yet have electricity or water in their houses.
The worst part of gutting a house is the refrigerator. They were filled with water when the floods came, and for some reason the water never leaked back out. So, 14 months later, after heat and rot, the "Katrina Stew" inside a refrigerator is among the most overpowering smells one could ever experience. The smell of a breached fridge has caused many relief workers to be violently ill on the spot. Because of this, gutters are instructed not to move a refrigerator until the very end of the gutting process, to avoid spilling or leaking even a small amount of the foul black ooze. Regardless of the warning, I decided it would help my group to move a fridge out of the way of the hallway it was blocking, and sure enough, the door opened and the ooze came out everywhere. I could smell it through my p100 super-filtration mask. I could smell it outside at the street. My group was not happy. Not happy at all. I apologized profusely. Even so, I heard stories about myself later that day from others not in our group - "Hey, I hear some idiot moved the fridge at one of the houses today." "Yeah, that was me." "Oh...that was dumb."
I have never seen so many roaches. It was like science fiction.
My favorite thing is having a hammer in one hand and a crowbar in the other. There is a certain technique that allows you to hammer and pry and remove an entire 4x8 sheet of panelling or sheetrock at one time. It is such a rush. You feel like some kind of man-machine. An entire room can be stripped in a matter of minutes. I literally cannot get tired of doing that.
The act of kicking down a door almost never happens for a happy reason - imagine bringing your baby home from the hospital and kicking down the door in excitement - but it is one of the most powerful feelings when you do it, and it is my belief that we each must take every advantage of an opportunity to do so.
Many of the volunteers who responded to the need are no longer there. The relief effort is hurting due to lack of interest. There are still several years' worth of work to do. The residents have no hope to rebuild apart from the efforts of volunteers.
I stepped on a nail that broke the skin on the bottom of my foot, even through my work boots. It can be dangerous work.
Many residents have no insurance to cover the damage. It is classified as flood damage, which is not covered by most home insurance policies. They must rebuild from their own pockets.
The camraderie from this type of work is intense. Friendships are nearly instantaneous.